Links: Intellectual cowardice, fiction, child support threats, writing, oppression, and more!

* “Our Intellectual Cowardice,” which the structure of academia makes rife. That being said, I also suspect that a lot of academics are silent regarding the weakness or silliness of other academics because none of their work matters: it’s already so widely ignored that another silly journal article is never going to have any impact anyway.

* Be wary of fMRI brain scan studies like this one, but it does at least get around the correlation-is-not-causation problem that plagues similar claims: “Study: Reading a Novel Changes Your Brain: College students experienced heightened connectivity in their left temporal cortexes after reading fiction.”

* Child support and the threat point.

* What is it like to operate on obese patients?

* “Writing to Win;” why do we obsess over the moment of a writer’s publication?

* Great news for pot smokers: drug cartels are building massive underground railroads into the U.S. to transport goods that Americans desperately want to buy.

* Are Bedrooms Superfluous? The next-generation Murphy bed.

* “How the Drug War Disappeared the Jury Trial,” which everyone needs to read and which should also scare everyone who does read it.

* “An MLA Story;” takeaway: Don’t go to grad school.

* “Why Does A Good Kettle Cost $90+?” Since I started drinking tea I have wondered about this and now have an answer. The Hacker News discussion is also good, except for the top comment.

* “The Humanities and Us: Don’t listen to today’s narcissistic academics—the West’s cultural inheritance is indispensable;” on some level you’ve read this before and as usual the writer goes too far in imagining a golden, magical past but nonetheless it is worth reading and complements “An MLA Story” and “Our Intellectual Cowardice.”

Grad students lack market power, and it shows: Or, the UC-Riverside non-scandal

A brief wave of academic outrage hit when UC-Rivderside’s English department sent job candidates an e-mail about MLA interviews five days before the conference. (MLA stands for “Modern Language Associate;” it’s big the soiree for English jobs). The outrage is somewhat justified because UC-R is in fact acting like a jerk. But many of the angry commentators are also missing something essential: from an employers perspective, a job search is often not about getting the absolute “best” or the most right person for the job. It’s about getting someone who meets or reasonably exceeds the qualifications. Search costs are real and high. Paul Graham wrote about these issues in “Two Kinds of Judgement” (The excerpt is long, but I can’t find a way to make it shorter while still retaining the point):

There are two different ways people judge you. Sometimes judging you correctly is the end goal. But there’s a second much more common type of judgement where it isn’t. We tend to regard all judgements of us as the first type. We’d probably be happier if we realized which are and which aren’t.

The first type of judgement, the type where judging you is the end goal, include court cases, grades in classes, and most competitions. Such judgements can of course be mistaken, but because the goal is to judge you correctly, there’s usually some kind of appeals process. If you feel you’ve been misjudged, you can protest that you’ve been treated unfairly.

Nearly all the judgements made on children are of this type, so we get into the habit early in life of thinking that all judgements are.

But in fact there is a second much larger class of judgements where judging you is only a means to something else. These include college admissions, hiring and investment decisions, and of course the judgements made in dating. This kind of judgement is not really about you.

Put yourself in the position of someone selecting players for a national team. Suppose for the sake of simplicity that this is a game with no positions, and that you have to select 20 players. There will be a few stars who clearly should make the team, and many players who clearly shouldn’t. The only place your judgement makes a difference is in the borderline cases. Suppose you screw up and underestimate the 20th best player, causing him not to make the team, and his place to be taken by the 21st best. You’ve still picked a good team. If the players have the usual distribution of ability, the 21st best player will be only slightly worse than the 20th best. Probably the difference between them will be less than the measurement error.

The 20th best player may feel he has been misjudged. But your goal here wasn’t to provide a service estimating people’s ability. It was to pick a team, and if the difference between the 20th and 21st best players is less than the measurement error, you’ve still done that optimally.

It’s a false analogy even to use the word unfair to describe this kind of misjudgement. It’s not aimed at producing a correct estimate of any given individual, but at selecting a reasonably optimal set.

One thing that leads us astray here is that the selector seems to be in a position of power. That makes him seem like a judge. If you regard someone judging you as a customer instead of a judge, the expectation of fairness goes away. The author of a good novel wouldn’t complain that readers were unfair for preferring a potboiler with a racy cover. Stupid, perhaps, but not unfair.

Most of the angry applicants for the UC-R job appear to have been in school for too long and not to realize that each employers’s goal isn’t to judge them perfectly. It’s to get someone who is reasonably okay and then get on with their lives. It’s also almost impossible to tell based on interviews and recommendations alone whether someone is a good for for a job; usually it takes months of working together to realize whether someone is actually good. In academia, I’m not sure one professor ever really knows if another is any good, since they don’t tend to take each other’s classes.

UC-R appears to think that it can get someone reasonable even though it’s doing something mean. They’re probably right.

English PhDs feel the heat because they lack market power. Many posted jobs get dozens or even more than a hundred very good-seeming candidates, almost any one of whom would be fine. They’d show up to department meetings, teach competently, publish in peer-reviewed journals. At that point, departments can pretty much post the candidates’s photos on a dartboard and pick the one who their darts hit.

A lot of grad students (and professors) also appear to have or want to have the same relationship with universities that children have to parents. But the universities aren’t there with their best interests in mind; the universities are doing their own thing. Realizing this is quite painful and probably helps to explain the anguish being expressed on blogs and Twitter. To the extent those blog posts and Tweets discourage others from starting or continuing grad school, they’re doing something useful (I myself have contributed to the genre).

In normal employment situations, employers who behave like jerks get punished because people won’t work for them. UC-R is unlikely to have that problem. They could probably restrict their entire search to Southern California and still easily have 10 or more very good candidates. Given that, UC-R isn’t even behaving in a way that is “stupid,” to use Graham’s word.

The curious thing is that so many people want to stay in academia despite the way it treats them. Megan McArdle wrote about the obvious solution: “Can’t Get Tenure? Then Get a Real Job.”

Academic purity guilt and blogging

The Little Professor says:

Unlike some of the academics to whom Katherine Firth links in her post about the “Academic Purity Cult,” I’ve never received any professional pushback for blogging (well, aside from the people who don’t like something I’ve blogged, but that’s a different issue).

I have—a lot of it, in fact, at conferences and from professors. That may be in part because I’m a grad student or because of my department, but pretty much everyone in academia who has deigned to comment on the issue has disparaged blogging or any writing whatsoever that doesn’t entail peer-review. I find this bizarre because I see the primary activity of studying English being to read things, learn things through reading, write about things, and disseminate them—and the web is a very good medium for that, especially for anyone who wants to be read. Academic journals aren’t a good way to get people to read.

To me, the revealing comparison is to math, physics, CS and other fields: post to, say, and let the peer-review and publication catch up to the cutting-edge research. If a science-based academic learns something new, it’s imperative to get it out there as soon as possible! It’s important and treated as it’s important.

By contrast, most humanities profs appear at best indifferent and at worst hostile to those kinds of open processes, and they’re willing to endure months or years of delay between finishing a piece and seeing it published. Peer-reviewed journals won’t accept work previously published on blogs or other online forums. Evidently what we’re doing isn’t sufficiently important to others to be worth publishing in a timely manner. Instead we’re stuck in the mannerist world of journal publishing, and disdain for alternate modes of dissemination (like blogs) is part of that world. One word that keeps getting used by my professors about me is “journalistic” which they see as an insult (I by and large don’t write in deliberately obscured prose) but which I see as a quasi-compliment (I write in a way that other people can understand).

English literature doesn’t appear at all interested in “impact factors” or even readers, which I find strange given the accessibility of English, relative to, say, math proofs.

Popularity isn’t the only valuable metric for new work, but in contemporary academia it isn’t even considered. That should change.

EDIT: I’m not the only one to notice. This is from Gerald Graff’s 1979 book Literature Against Itself:

Where quantitative ‘production’ of scholarship and criticism is a chief measure of professional achievement, narrow canons of proof, evidence, logical consistency, and clarity of argument have to go. To insist on them imposes a drag upon progress. (97)

What matters is the quantity of work produced and where it is published, rather than whether it is right—or, as Graff says, “canons of proof, evidence, logical consistency, and clarity of argument.”

The stupidity of what I’m doing and the meaning of real work: Reading for PhD comprehensive exams

Last weekend, I wrote a flurry of posts after months of relative silence because I needed to do real work.

This might sound strange: I am doing a lot of things, especially reading, but all of it is make-believe, pretend work. That’s because the primary thing I’m doing is studying for PhD comprehensive exams in English lit. The exam set is structured in four parts: three, four-hour written segments, and a single oral exam, on topics related to stuff that’s not very important to me and probably not very important to most people. The exams also aren’t very relevant to being an English professor, because the key skill that English professors possess and practice is writing long-form essays/articles that are published in peer-reviewed journals. The tests I’m taking don’t, as far as I can tell, map very effectively to that skill.

As a consequence, the tests, although very time consuming, aren’t very good proxies for what the job market actually wants me to do.*

Consequently, PhD exams—at least in English—aren’t real work. They’re pretend work—another hoop to be jumped through on the way to getting a union card. Paul Graham makes a useful distinction in “Good and Bad Procrastination,” when he says that “Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.” That’s what I’ve done through most of grad school, and that’s part of the reason why I have a fairly large body of work on this blog, which you can obviously read, a fairly large body of fiction, which you can’t (at the moment, but that’s going to change in the coming months). To Graham, the kind of small stuff that represents bad procrastination is “Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary.” Passing exams has zero chance of being mentioned in my obituary. Writing books or articles does.** PhD exams feel like bad procrastination because they’re not really examining anything useful.

They’re also hard, but hard in the wrong way, like picking patterns out of noise. Being hard in the right way means the soreness you get after working out, or when a challenging math problem suddenly clicks. The quasi-work I’m doing is intellectually unsatisfying—the mental equivalent of eating ice cream and candy all day, every day. Sure, they’re technically food, but you’re going to develop some serious problems if you persist in the ice cream and candy diet. The same is true of grad school, which might be why so many people emerge from it with a lugubrious, unpalatable writing style. Grad school doesn’t select or train for style; it selects and trains for a kind of strange anti-style, in which the less you can say in more words is rewarded. It’s the kind of style I’m consciously trying to un-cultivate, however hard the process might be, and this blog is one outlet for keeping the real writer alive in the face of excessive doses from tedious but canonized work and literary theory. Exams, if anything, reinforce this bogus hardness. If I’m ever in a position of power in an English department with a grad program, I’m going to try and offer an alternative to conventional exams, and say that four to six publishable, high-quality papers can or should take their place. That, at least, mirrors the skills valued by the job market.

The bogosity of exams relates to a separate problem in English academia, which I started noticing when I was an undergrad and have really noticed lately: the English curriculum is focused on the wrong thing. The problem can be stated concisely: Should English department teach content (like, say, Medieval poetry, or Modernist writers), or skills (like writing coherently and close reading)? Louis Menand describes the issue in The Marketplace of Ideas:

[C]ompare the English departments at two otherwise quite similar schools, Amherst and Wellesley. English majors at Wellesley are required to take ten English department courses [. . .] All English majors must take a core course called ‘Critical Interpretations’; one course on Shakespeare; and at least two courses on literature written before 1900 [. . .] The course listing reflects attention to every traditional historical period in English and American literature. Down the turnpike at Amherst, on the other hand, majors have only to take ten courses ‘offered or approved by the department’—in other words, apparently, they may be course sin any department. Majors have no core requirement and no period requirements. (Menand 89-90)

Most departments right now appear to answer “content.” Mine does. But I increasingly think that’s the wrong answer. I’m not convinced that it’s insanely important for undergrads to know Chaucer, or to have read Sister Carrie and Maggie: Girl of the Streets, or to have read any particular body of work. I do think it’s insanely important for them to have very strong close reading skills and exceptional writing skills. Unfortunately, I appear to be in the minority of professional Englishers in this respect. And I’m in grad school, where the answer skill mostly appears to be “content,” and relatively few people appear to be focusing on skills; those are mostly left to individuals to develop on their own. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone discuss what makes good writing at conferences, in seminars, or in peer-reviewed papers (MFA programs appear to be very interested in this subject, however, which might explain some of their rise since 1945).

As Menand points out, no one is sure what an “‘English’ department or degree is supposed to be.” That’s part of the field’s problem. I think it’s also part of the reason many students are drawn to creative writing classes: in those, at least the better ones, writing gets taught; the reading is more contemporary; and I think many people are doing things that matter. When I read the Romantic Poets, I mostly want to do anything but read the Romantic Poets. Again, I have nothing against the Romantic Poets or against other people reading the Romantic Poets—I just don’t want to do it. Yet English undergrad and grad school forces the reading of them. Maybe it should. But if so, it should temper the reading of them with a stronger focus on writing, and what makes good writing.

Then again, if English departments really wanted to do more to reward the producing of real content, they’d probably structure the publishing of peer-reviewed articles better. Contrary to what some readers have said in e-mails to me, or inferred from what I’ve written, I’m actually not at all opposed to peer review or peer-reviewed publications. But the important thing these days isn’t a medium for publishing—pretty much anyone with an Internet connection can get that for free—but the imprimatur of peer-review, which says, “This guy [or gal] knows what he’s talking about.” A more intellectually honest way to go about peer-review would be to have every academic have a blog / website. When he or she has an article ready to go, he should post it, send a link to an editor, and ask the editor to kick it out to a peer-reviewer. Their comments, whether anonymous or not, should be appended to the article. If it’s accepted, it gets a link and perhaps the full-text copied and put in the “journal’s” main page. If it doesn’t, readers can judge its merits or lack thereof for themselves.

The sciences arguably already have this, because important papers appear on before they’re officially “published.” But papers in the sciences appear to be less status-based and more content-based than papers in the humanities.

I think this change will happen in the humanities, very slowly, over time; it won’t be fast because there’s no reason for it to be fast, and the profession’s gatekeepers are entrenched and have zero incentive to change. If anything, they have a strong incentive to maintain the system, because doing that raises their own status and increases their own power within the profession. So I don’t foresee this happening, even if it would be an important thing. But then again, academics are almost always behind the important thing: the important thing is happening in some marginal, liminal space, and academics inhabit a much more central area, where it’s easy to ignore stuff at the margins. I don’t see that changing either, especially in a world where many people compete for few academic slots. In that world, pointless hoop-jumping is going to remain.

* There’s a vast literature in industrial organization on the subject of hiring practices, and most of that literature finds that the most effective ways to hire workers is to give them an IQ test and a work-skills or work-practice test. The former is effectively illegal in the U.S., so the best bet is to give workers a test of the thing they’ll actually be called on to do.

** I also consciously ask myself this question set:

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they’re working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?

2. Are you working on one of them?

3. Why not?

I have an answer to number three, but it doesn’t seem like a very good one.

What you should know BEFORE you start grad school / PhD programs in English Literature: The economic, financial, and opportunity costs

This post started life as an e-mail to a high school teacher who is thinking about grad school in English Lit. I expanded and cleaned it up slightly for the blog, but the substance remains.

Pleasure meeting you the other day. I’m too well-versed in the anti-grad school lit, and the short version of this e-mail is “don’t go to grad school in the humanities.” If you go anyway, make sure you have an obvious fallback career; don’t assume that you’ll figure it out after five to ten years. Grad school is not a good place to pointlessly delay adulthood (a phrase we’ll come back to later).

Let me start with Thomas Benton’s articles, like “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind’” and “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Read both. Read both twice. Then read Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, and pay special attention to the sections where he discusses supply and demand: I get the sense that a lot of people spend more time deeply, critically thinking about fun restaurants for dinner tonight than whether grad school is really a good idea. I’m not saying you’re one of those people, but the number of would-be researchers who do almost no research in evaluating their grad school decisions is astounding. Menand’s basic point is simple: most people in English PhD programs are not going to be researchers and tenure-track professors at universities. [1] Some number will, but that number is tiny.

Don’t put too much stock in stories like “From Graduate School to Welfare: The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps,” but they’re being told and repeated for reasons. People like the woman featured have made spectacularly bad life choices, and, while she’s an extreme example, many would-be professors eventually curse themselves for starting grad school. If I didn’t have a second job working for a real business for real money, I’d probably be close to qualifying for food stamps (without that real job, however, I wouldn’t have made it this far in grad school, because it’s almost impossible to live a reasonably normal life on $13,000 – $16,000 per year).

I know grad students who can’t get a $7 sandwich at Paradise Bakery because it’ll blow their food budget for the month. They have to bring lunch to campus every day because they can’t afford not to. Tired in the morning? Tough: make your bean-sprout sandwich or your lentil curry. Personally I like bean-sprout sandwiches and lentil curry, but I also like the option of buying lunch on a whim. Not having any money also sucks if you need or want a book and can’t get it easily or expeditiously from the library and find yourself unable to buy it for $30. Someone who’s has four years of undergrad and two or more years of grad school should be able to buy a sandwich without carefully thinking about the financial repercussions.

Consider what you’ve got right now, today. You’re a teacher, so I’ll guess you make ~$30,000 – $40,000 a year. Call it $35,000. If you spend five years getting a PhD, you’ll be giving up at least $100,000 ($35,000*5=175,000; $15,000*5=$75,000) short of what you’d make teaching high school. And that’s not taking into account the raises you might get as a teacher, or the benefits, which can be substantial (especially if you’re on a 30-year retirement track). If you take 10 years, like the median PhD student, you’ll be giving up $225,000, again not counting benefits, which are far better as a teacher than they are as a grad student. Accounting for retirement benefits, you might be giving up more like $300,000. A lot of money, no?

If you get a tenure-track job, you could conceivably make up that amount over the course of your lifetime, but, remember, you’re not even likely to make that much as a TT prof; I’ve asked the University of Arizona’s TT-track but non-tenured faculty gauche money questions, and they report making about $50,000 a year—and U of A is a plum, super-competitive job straight out of grad school. It’s certainly possible to make less and work more. You can do the math on how long you’ll have to work to financially make up for income foregone during grad school. It’s ugly.

If you don’t get a tenure track job, you may wish very deeply for a couple extra hundred thousand dollars. These are loose numbers, but no one I’ve floated them to has disputed them, I’d guess that making them more precise by counting opportunity / investment costs would only weigh them more heavily to being a teacher, given how much of one’s lifetime income from being a teacher is backloaded by retirement pay.

So who’s grad school good for? Again, let’s follow the money, and I’ll use the University of Arizona as an example because that’s where I am. The out-of-state credit-hour fee for undergrads for Spring 2012 was $1,024. For in-state students it was $651. About a quarter of Arizona undergrads come from out-of-state. Grad students teach about 50 freshmen per semester, or about 100 per year. That’s $48,825 in in-state tuition collected, and $25,600 of out-of-state tuition—but each grad student teaches three credit hours. Triple those numbers. They’re $76,800 for out-of-state students and $146,000 for in-state students, for a total of $222,8000. Some of that money goes to profs who run grad seminars, to facilities, to various other administrative functions, and so on. (Grad students also get a couple of one-semester, one-class waivers), but the basic calculation shows why the university as a whole likes grad students, a lot.

Most universities love ABDs, who consume minimal university resources. Menand says:

One pressure on universities to reduce radically the time to degree is simple humanitarianism. Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process. Many people drop in and drop out and then drop in again; a large proportion of students never finish; and some people have to retool at relatively advanced ages. Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete for jobs that most will not get. Unfortunately, there is an institutional efficiency, which is that graduate students constitute a cheap labor force. There are not even search costs involved in appointing a graduate student to teach. The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing PhDs, but when it is producing ABDs […] The longer students remain in graduate school, the more people are available to staff undergraduate classes. Of course, the overproduction of PhDs also creates a buyer’s advantage in the market for academic labor.

There’s little incentive for universities to speed up the grad school process. If anything, their financial incentive is to slow it further, and this is what we see. Regardless of their marketing, remember that universities are businesses, and businesses prefer to pay less for labor, not more, just as you probably prefer to pay less for goods and services, not more. Many articles decry the state of the adjunct labor force, but universities treat adjuncts like they do because they can. Supply and demand exist and they matter.

Most people I know who aren’t in grad school and talk about going discuss the life of the mind, the transformative power of education, how they want to be a professor, their interest in teaching, their love of research and so forth. Most people I know who are in grad school talk about finances, economics, and the job market. Not all the time, to be sure, and I’ve had some lovely conversations about The Professor of Desire and Billy Collins and Heart of Darkness. But jobs and money are on almost everyone’s mind, especially as peers from high school or college are getting jobs at Google, or finishing their residencies, or getting promoted enough to discuss their “401(k),” which is a sure sign of aging, along with in-depth real estate analysis—remember back when we only talked about sex and art? Neither do I.

Many grad students remain in a state of financial adolescence for a decade of their prime career-building years. Don’t do that. Become an adult: you’ll have to eventually, and the skills you build outside the academy are often more valuable than those you might build in humanities grad schools.

Some grad students complain about being financially exploited by universities, but it’s hard to exploit highly educated people who have terrific reading and writing skills and who should know better, or at least do some cursory research before they spend as long as a decade getting a degree. The anti-grad school literature is vast—and highly accessible: type “Why shouldn’t I go to grad school?” into a search engine. Spend a few hours with the results.

People who aren’t in grad school, along with people who are professors and have jobs, also talk about wanting to be involved with “the Conversation” (I capitalize “Conversation” in my head), which means the book chat that happens in peer-reviewed journals and books about writers and ideas. But if you want to contribute to the Conversation, get a blog from or and start producing valuable work. Comment on the work of other book people. Write about what you notice. This won’t get you tenure, and it will probably not get you read by other professors, but, if you’re any good, you will probably have more readers than the average literary journal. See “No One Really Reads Academic Papers” and “The Research Bust.” In writing a blog no one has heard of, I’ve had greater impact and reach than the published work of 98% of tenured humanities professors. The paucity of most humanities professors’ intellectual ambition is astounding, when you really think about it.

To be sure, some people succeed in grad school. Maybe I’ll be one, although this looks increasingly less likely. A PhD is not a lottery ticket, but it can start to feel like one. If you do go, you better know the odds and know the costs, financial and otherwise. You better know that there are very, very few tenure track jobs, though there are a lot of one-year gigs at random places that are happy to offer you not very much money for not very good job security. The system is rigged against you. Humanities academics are often very interested in talking about all kinds of exploitation, but they very rarely want to talk about the exploitation that happens in grad school itself. Play games you’re likely to win, not games you’re likely to lose. Choose status ladders to climb that matter, not ones that mattered 50 years ago.

Too many people—maybe most—enter grad school so they can pointlessly delay adulthood. Adulthood, however, arrives sooner or later anyway. Too many people enter grad school because they’ve succeeded by conventional academic metrics and hoop-jumping through most of their lives and find the big, amorphous real world terrifying. But grad school, if it was ever a good way of avoiding the real world, surely isn’t now, because the real world is a far harsher place when you’re 32 and have a degree of dubious value and are trying to cobble gigs together to pay rent. See again the link above concerning PhDs on food stamps.

There are also dangers that are rarely discussed. In humanities PhD programs, dissertation advisors and committee members may be distant or unhelpful. Outright theft of work is rare, but indifference is common. It’s possible for a single person to outright block or retard individual progress in a way that’s rare in normal jobs. A committee can offer no or positive feedback, then outright reject a dissertation. A sudden retirement, departure, or sabbatical can imperil years of a candidate’s work. You don’t want to get in a situation where a single person can annihilate your career. That’s what grad school in the humanities often means.

I don’t know anyone in the business who is really gung-ho about encouraging smart, motivated undergrads and recent graduates to go to humanities grad programs.

In addition, if you don’t thoroughly read everything I’ve linked to in this post, you shouldn’t go to grad school because you haven’t invested enough time in thinking about and learning about what you’re getting into.

Some of the problems above could be ameliorated, if it were in the system’s interest to do so (it’s not; universities’s finances are enabled by the cruel student loan system, while professors like the system, with the status and modest amounts of power it grants them, as it is). Eliminating tenure would help, because few schools want to make what might be 40+ year commitments to salary + benefits if they don’t have to. A shift to long-term contracts would be an improvement at the margins.

I’ve seen some proposals that universities offer a four-year “teaching PhD” that is awarded primarily on the basis of coursework; since most PhD students are at most going to become adjuncts or lecturers anyway, one might as well quit the facade that currently exists. The teaching dissertation would be a collection of coursework and/or experiment descriptions, depending on the field. Something like this paragraph could have been written any time in the last 15 or 20 years, and the system trundles along because it works well enough and a sufficient number of people are willing to chase the tenure dream to keep it going.

EDIT 2016: When I first wrote this in 2012 I was still in grad school. I’m updating it in January of 2016. Let me be blunter: going to grad school in the humanities is an idiotic life choice that will likely fuck up your life. Of the people I know who were my approximate grad school peers, two live at home; one works at an Apple Store; another works in a preschool; another is teaching the SAT, LSAT, and the like for one of the big companies that pay $15 – $20 an hour for such work; and a couple are adjuncts. A few have short-term contracts. Only one or two have the tenure-track positions they were training for.

If you must, must, must go to grad school despite knowing how dumb doing so is, quit after two years with an M.A. Don’t waste years of your life. There is often a false dichotomy presented between the “life of the mind” and pursuing lots of filthy money. But I like to observe that it’s reasonable to seek reasonable material conditions while pursuing the life of the mind. If you can’t achieve reasonable material conditions you should do something else, and that something else may enable the true life of the mind, not the potemkin life of the mind offered by most humanities graduate degree programs.

Further reading:

* Most universities hire exclusively from elite universities. If you don’t attend an elite university, you’re unlikely to get a job regardless of your publishing record.

* Robert Nagel’s “Straight Talk about Graduate School.”

* “Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor.

* Penelope Trunk’s “Don’t try to dodge the recession with grad school,” as well as “Best alternative to grad school” and “Voices of the defenders of grad school. And me crushing them.”

* As of 2015, “The Job Market for Academics Is Still Terrifying.” Fewer than half of humanities PhDs are “employed” (using whatever metric they use) and about 35% are unemployed altogether—which is at least three times the national unemployment rate, which also counts high-school dropouts.

* If you are male, see “Insanity in academia, or, reason #1,103 why you should stay out of grad school: Kangaroo courts” to better understand the culture you seek to join. You’re an accusation away from having your career destroyed.

* “The New Intellectuals: Is the academic jobs crisis a boon to public culture?” (Note the sections about the bogosity of peer review and the economic precariousness of the “new intellectuals”).

[1] Menand also writes:

Between 1945 and 1975, the number of American undergraduates increased 500 percent, but the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900 percent. On the one hand, a doctorate was harder to get; on the other, it became less valuable because the market began to be flooded with PhDs.

This fact registered after 1970, when the rapid expansion of American higher education abruptly slowed to a crawl, depositing on generational shores a huge tenured faculty and too many doctoral programs churning out PhDs. The year 1970 is also the point from which we can trace the decline in the proportion of students majoring in liberal arts fields, and, within the decline, a proportionally larger decline in undergraduates majoring in the humanities. In 1970–71, English departments awarded 64,342 bachelor’s degrees; that represented 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, including those awarded in non-liberal arts fields, such as business. The only liberal arts category that awarded more degrees than English was history and social science, a category that combines several disciplines. Thirty years later, in 2000–01, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all fields was 50 percent higher than in 1970–71, but the number of degrees in English was down both in absolute numbers—from 64,342 to 51,419—and as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, from 7.6 percent to around 4 percent.

Fewer students major in English. This means that the demand for English literature specialists has declined.

The number of undergrads in English Lit has declined while the number of people getting PhDs has remained constant or risen. There is basically no industry for English PhDs to enter. You do not have to be an economist to understand the result.

Late March Links: Sexting times two, English as a baffling language, vocabulary, raising the status of U.S. manufactured goods, Lev Grossman's The Magician King, science as a career, and more

* Sexting lawsuits get stupid.

* Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: sex. And, the writer notes, why do so many videogames deal with it in such a juvenile (read: juvenile boy) way?

* An etiquette guide, and one of the unintentional hilarities of self-publishing.

* “To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more [. . .] ‘Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation [. . . .]’ ” The problem: I don’t see how you can accomplish this without making it harder to fire teachers. One thing most high-status occupations have in common: you have to be good at them to remain in the occupation. If you’re not good, you’ll be forced to the margins of the occupation, suffer financial consequences, and have clients leave you. Until teaching does that, it can’t really improve in status. Until teachers’ unions will accept simpler firing procedures or are eliminated, that can’t happen.

* English, that baffling language.

* AT & T is piping Internet data straight to the NSA. Nasty.

* Microsoft Word Now Includes Squiggly Blue Line To Alert Writer When Word Is Too Advanced For Mainstream Audience.

* Who Is Really a Sex Rebel? Why we are so obsessed with desire among the Victorians.

* A political history of science fiction.

* Neil Gaiman: Why defend freedom of icky speech?

* A Girl’s Nude Photo, and Altered Lives. This is completely insane:

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it.

In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost. Only then would the community try to turn the fiasco into an opportunity to educate.

* Lev Grossman says The Magician King will be out August 9.

* How to manufacture stuff in the U.S.: raise the status of the stuff’s place of origin. This is being written by a guy who has a Tom Bihn (made in Washington State!) messenger bag, so it worked on me.

* Deadbeats and Turnips: understand who can actually pay child support, since sending people who can’t pay to jail is counterproductive.

The basic problem is this: someone (usually the father) can’t pay child support. Virtually all states now send you to jail if you can’t pay court-ordered child support. Sending people to jail has lots of obvious negative effects on the ability to find and keep a job. So you get out of jail, can’t find a job, still have to pay child support and. . . go to jail again.

* How Western Diets Are Making The World Sick. This should be obvious to anyone who’s read Michael Pollan.

* The real science gap, which mirrors Philip Greenspun’s Women in Science. The short version: science is great but science careers are terrible and getting worse. Smart students figure this out and do something other than science PhD programs. Remember this next time someone is bemoaning the lack of American scientists.

Buying a Kindle: Why Didn't I Think of This Last Semester?

Despite my extensive carping about the Digital Restrictions Management on the Amazon Kindle, I ordered one earlier today and now wish I’d been smart enough to do so last semester.

Why? I’m a graduate student in English Lit, and I looked at my reading requirements for this semester and found that the vast majority of the assigned books are out-of-copyright (meaning they were published before 1923), and I can download them free; most are also famous enough to make them easily accessible online. In other words, buying all my books for the semester will cost $200. Buying a Kindle will cost $259, plus another $30 for a case. The Kindle + free books effectively makes the Kindle $59. If I’d realized this last semester, it already would’ve paid for itself. In addition, I won’t have to lug around nearly as many .pdfs as I do now.

Given that the English curriculums appear to focus on pre-1923 texts, I’d be surprised if more English majors and grad students don’t take this path. At the moment, it’s possible to read class books either on a computer screen or print them out, but neither solution works all that well. I suspect this one will, though, as always, we shall see.

November links and Success is Never Final: Empire, War, and Faith in Early Modern Europe — Geoffrey Parker

* Books Briefly Noted: Geoffrey Parker’s Success is Never Final: Empire, War, and Faith in Early Modern Europe is another book more likely to be cited than read and whose abstract generalizations are vastly more interesting than the particulars in which they’re mired. The important generalization is that success often carries within it decadence and decline through rigidity, over-extension and arrogance, and such principles apply across a wide range of fields from the national to the individual. One is reminded of Beowulf, a poem usually read as a tale about eventual destruction of the mightiest warrior by the ravages of time and nature. Perhaps that is why we seek “happily ever after” in fiction: as a veil on or eliding against the inevitable.

The specifics regarding early modern and late medieval European machinations can verge on the scholastically tedious; this is a book best sampled like hors d’oeuvre, rather than a full dinner. Learning about the spread of the artillery fortress is much less interesting than its effects on warfare and statecraft. But the last chapter, which is on the nature of law and its uses as seen specifically through the prosecution of sexual crimes by sixteenth-century “Kirks,” or tribunals, in Scotland, says a great deal in a short space. This is not the only essay in Success is Never Final with little if anything to do with the putative topic, but such minor sins can be forgiven.

* Those of you who are following markets—or just paying any attention to any contemporary news media whatsoever—are probably aware that we’re in the middle of a financial crisis that might be the worst since the Great Depression. The best commentary so far, however, comes by way of Megan McArdle:

From a senior who majored in English:

“Is it wrong to feel schadenfreude about my classmates who majored in Economics to get “safe” jobs at Lehman and Merrill Lynch?”

I heard about it second hand, so I’m paraphrasing, but this gave me hope for America’s youth.

* XKCD represents graphically why you should avoid the Amazon Kindle.

* Richard Woodward at the Wall Street Journal attempts A Nobel Undertaking: Getting to Know Le Clézio, who won the latest Nobel Prize in literature. After reading Woodward, I feel pretty good about not getting to know Le Clézio well.

* American Journalism Review argues that “A smaller, less frequently published version packed with analysis and investigative reporting and aimed at well-educated news junkies that may well be a smart survival strategy for the beleaguered old print product.” They should call such a beast a “magazine,” which could be a storehouse of useful or interesting information. Perhaps one based in New York would do well.

* Speaking of newspapers, see The New York Times recursively on Mourning Old Media’s Decline. A sample:

For readers, the drastic diminishment of print raises an obvious question: if more people are reading newspapers and magazines, why should we care whether they are printed on paper?

The answer is that paper is not just how news is delivered; it is how it is paid for.

More than 90 percent of the newspaper industry’s revenue still derives from the print product, a legacy technology that attracts fewer consumers and advertisers every single day. A single newspaper ad might cost many thousands of dollars while an online ad might only bring in $20 for each 1,000 customers who see it.

Ironically, by linking to this article I’m exemplifying the problem the article itself discusses. And the biggest issue actually gets saved until the end: “The blogosphere has had its share of news breaks, but absent a functioning mainstream media to annotate, it could be pretty darn quiet out there.”

The same is true of literary essays and analysis.

* Competent elites: happier and more alive? Maybe, but though I’m intrigued, I also can’t help think about sample size, cause/effect, and comparative problems. I might also title the article, “Competent elites: Happier and more alive and more arrogant?”

* How to lose friends and alienate people, global edition, courtesy of Clive Crook:

There has not been another attack – and Edward Alden, a former Washington bureau chief for the FT and now a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, recognises that foreign terrorists find it much harder to get in. The trouble is, so does everybody else, including people that the US needs. On balance, Alden argues, the new regime has done more harm than good even in narrow security terms, to say nothing of the wider human and economic costs. Few who read his compellingly argued and meticulously researched book will be inclined to disagree.

The cure might be worse than the disease. For more on related topics, see Schneier, Bruce.

* Although this has nothing to do with books, Freakonomics reports about the positive externalities of binge drinking for social security, among other unusual ideas.

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